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Kenneth Macleay (1802-78)

Prince Alfred, later Duke of Edinburgh (1844-1900)  Signed and dated 1864

Watercolour on ivory | RCIN 420330

  • Although Macleay had achieved steady and acknowledged success as a miniature painter in Edinburgh throughout the 1830s and 1840s, his career, in contrast to that of Robert Thorburn, was then subject to a decline brought on in part by his reluctance to seek patronage in London.‘ This miniature signified a crucial reversal of fortunes for Macleay, symbolised by its being exhibited in 1865 at the Royal Academy, the only year in which his works were lent to the exhibition there. Prince Alfred had been impressed with the miniatures by MacLeay which he had seen exhibited at a special exhibition of Scottish art in honour of the Social Science Congress at the RSA in 1863; indeed Prince Alfred had returned to the exhibition for a second time in November of that year with the Princess Royal and Prince Frederick William of Prussia. Following a recommendation of Macleay’s work by Noel Paton (Queen’s Limner for Scotland), Queen Victoria commissioned the artist to paint watercolour portraits of her three younger sons. Prince Alfred sat in Highland dress for the full-length watercolour which was completed at Dalkeith Palace, the residence of the Duke and Duchess of Buccleuch, in June 1864 (RA 1865, no. 691; current location unknown); it later met with great acclaim when exhibited in Edinburgh, although its reception in London had been more critical. Macleay’s miniature of Prince Alfred was completed in July 1864 in Edinburgh ‘from the whole length Portrait’ (RA PP/VIC/2/88/7863), but Queen Victoria subsequently insisted that Macleay make various alterations to it, against his better judgement. He had written on despatching it on 4 August:

    The Queen will observe that I have done the Miniature in a Black Handkerchief at Her Majesty’s Command, but on again seeing the large picture (as it was painted in a white Tie by The Queens desire at first, and all the arrangements in accordance & with reference to the white,) that it would quite spoil it to put it in a Black Handkerchief – in which opinion The President & all the members of the Royal Scottish Academy who have seen it, entirely concur, I have left it white. The complexion I have darkened as the Queen commanded. & also darkened the left Eyelash.

    Her testy response, written in pencil on the reverse of his note, stated: ‘The Queen does not like this miniature as well as the original and she wishes Mr. McLeay to alter it by and large’ (RA PP/VIC/1864/17728).

    The miniature remains important as one of the rare examples of the work in miniature of this once prolific artist. His early work, such as his engagement portrait of Jane Baillie Welsh, Mrs Thomas Carlyle (Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh), reveals a debt to the style of Andrew Robertson; this later work demonstrates the careful drawing and freshness which was so characteristic of his portraits in watercolour and only falls short of the best miniatures by his Scottish contemporaries Robert Thorburn and John Faed (1819/20 – 1902). In terms of his personal development, it led to his being given his most important commission, The Highlanders of Scotland series, a project in which he and the Queen were united in a common interest and which was to absorb him for the following five years.

    Signed, dated and inscribed on the reverse in ink: His / Royal Highness / The Prince Alfred. / painted by / Kenneth Macleay / R.S.A. / Edinburgh / July 1864.


    Commissioned by Queen Victoria in 1864
  • Medium & Techniques

    Watercolour on ivory


    watercolour painting


    8.5 x 6.8 cm (support, canvas/panel/str external)

    9.8 x 8.2 cm (frame, external)

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